SINGAPORE - Convenience stores are back with a vengeance, plying the trendiest items from the latest Korean noodles to the best Japanese sweets.
Generic instant noodles and flaccid hot dogs, be gone.
This month, Bloomberg reported that 1,000 unprofitable 7-Eleven stores in Japan were set to close as part of structural reform in a saturated market.
In Singapore, competition remains stiff among the major chains such as 7-Eleven and Cheers.
Muscling in on the big boys is the chain of Buzz convenience stores, which is in the midst of revamping its 42 outlets islandwide.
Buzz is a wholly owned subsidiary of Singapore Press Holdings. Seven Buzz stores have already been revamped and the remaining 35 stores will be refurbished progressively.
On its evolution, Buzz's general manager Spencer Tan, 38, says: "To move with the times and better cater to customers, we have refreshed the look and expanded our offerings at the stores."
Here are five ways convenience stores are fighting for your dollar.
1. DESIRABLE CULT FOOD BRANDS
Exclusive snacks and ready-to-eat meals help stores stand out from the competition.
In line with its launch, Buzz convenience stores will offer the exclusive KiKi Sichuan Pepper Popcorn, a collaboration between Taiwanese brands KiKi noodles and Magi Planet popcorn. Other highlights include Haus Brew brown sugar milk tea and sugar-free Oishi Gold Genmaicha.
At 7-Eleven stores, Coke seems to be a draw. There are Apple Coke and frozen Coke packets from Japan as well as its popular onigiri range. Ghost pepper noodles from South Korea, for example, were flying off the shelves.
Over at Cheers, its exclusive products include ajitsuke tamago (Japanese onsen egg), cup soup (in creamy mushroom and corn flavours) as well as cup corn. Those who want pasta can also pick up ready-to-eat meals such as cheesy fusilli.
Mr Lucas Tok, 30, a lecturer at Singapore Polytechnic's School of Business marketing and retail section, observes that constantly rolling out new items is a big challenge for businesses. "When consumers have easy access to the Internet, they won't just settle for normal items. It is important to have the first-mover advantage for new products, but because of the intense competition, your special items may not be special for very long."
With more than 400 stores islandwide, the 7-Eleven chain picks certain stores to stock more products that cater to the demographic in the area, says its managing director Steven Lye.
For example, stores in major tourist areas such as Marina Bay would carry more of the popular salted egg snacks and travel-sized toiletries.
At the revamped Buzz store in Punggol Walk, the outlet has a stationery items such as exercise books and drawing blocks to cater to students from the neighbouring schools. It also offers free Wi-Fi and charging points for mobile phones.
3. HOUSE BRANDS
The biggest selection of house brands is offered by the 7-Eleven chain. These include its 7-Select range of ready-to-eat meals as well as its popular Mr Softee soft-serve ice cream. It also offers coffee from its 7Cafe brand as well as a selection of 7premium snacks from Japan.
As for Buzz, Mr Tan is in discussion with partners to create house brands or co-brand with them.
4. IMPULSE BUYS GALORE
You enter a store and grab some sweets, a drink or two and perhaps a bag of trendy potato chips from Japan. Before you know it, you walk out with a bag of products when all you needed was a mint.
The sheer convenience in such stores is what drives consumers to make impulse purchases.
7-Eleven's new design for next year is meant to highlight product categories with icons, so consumers can discover products "more easily than before", says Mr Lye.
5. EMBRACING TECHNOLOGY
Cashless payments are king.
Since Cheers introduced an unmanned and cashless store concept at Nanyang Polytechnic two years ago, it has expanded to two more branches. These stores feature a self-checkout system with cashless payment modes.
Cheers also offers a cashless solution where users can convert their loose change directly into stored value on ez-link cards. This initiative - launched last year - is a joint effort with EZ-Link to further encourage cashless transactions and reduce the use of coins islandwide.
At Buzz stores, customers need not use the ATM to withdraw cash. Instead, they can use the SoCash app.
The stores have also partnered logistic company Ninja Van, which offers parcel collection and drop-offs. Customers can buy Ninja Packs - $4.20 postage paid delivery packs - which are sold at Buzz.
Mr Tan of Buzz adds: "We will also be rolling out order-ahead technologies which allow customers to shop even when on the bus or MRT and collect their items when they alight. Simple redemptions, previously administered via coupon cut-outs in newspapers, will eventually be digitalised as well."
What is important, says Mr Tok, is that the introduction of technology truly adds to the convenience for consumers. "When introducing technology, it has to be more convenient and hassle-free for consumers and not just a way to increase business revenue. When people find it convenient, the revenue will naturally flow. There needs to be enough education and on-demand help for those who require it."
So what is next for the industry? Mr Tok predicts that convenience stores could start to work with companies such as Grab and Gojek for on-demand delivery.
He adds: "You're not just looking at impulse buys anymore as people just want sheer convenience. And if there's delivery, then the store's location also won't matter so much."
SIX HOT BUZZ ITEMS TO TRY
1. MAGI PLANET POPCORN STUDIO
What: The tongue-numbing flavour of KiKi Sichuan Pepper comes together with Taiwan's Magi Planet's popcorn and you get the addictive KiKi Sichuan Pepper Popcorn ($9.90 for a 110g pack), which is exclusive to Buzz convenience stores.
Other flavours include Corn Soup ($7 for a 50g pack) and Crystal Salted Caramel ($7 for a 50g pack), which uses Himalayan rock salt.
Promo: The Straits Times (ST) readers get $1 off each pack from Oct 21 to 27.
2. HAUS BREW BROWN SUGAR MILK TEA
What: Hot on the heels of the brown sugar beverage craze comes local brand Haus Brew's brown sugar milk tea ($2 a bottle), which is exclusive to Buzz stores.
Promo: ST readers get a bundle deal of two bottles for $3.40 from Oct 28 to Nov 3.
3. PURO COFFEE
What: Get your caffeine fix from local fairtrade coffee brand Puro Coffee. Options include latte, cappucino and espresso, each priced at $2.20 a cup and available at selected Buzz stores.
Promo: ST readers pay $1.50 a cup from Nov 4 to 10.
4. OISHI GOLD GENMAICHA
What: For a healthier drink, opt for the sugar-free Oishi Gold Genmaicha ($1.70 a bottle), which is green tea with roasted brown rice.
Promo: ST readers pay $1 a bottle from Nov 11 to 17.
5. JAPANESE-IMPORTED ICE CREAM
What: Cool down with a range of ice cream from Japan featuring brands such as Glico and Morinaga (from $3 to $3.50, available at selected Buzz stores). A must-try is the grape-flavoured Glico Ice-no-Mi ice balls.
Promo: ST readers get 50 cents off ice cream flavours from Nov 18 to 24.
6. READY-TO-EAT MEALS BY JUSTIN QUEK
What: Celebrity chef Justin Quek's range of ready-to-eat meals ($8.80, available at selected Buzz stores) are perfect for a quick bite. Grab a fish curry and coconut rice or sambal prawn capellini. They are flash-frozen and contain no preservatives.
Promo: ST readers get 20 per cent off all meals from Nov 25 to Dec 1.
Look out for the Buzz cut-out coupon on Mondays in The Straits Times or go to bit.ly/abrandnewbuzz for details.